Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at Dicapo Opera

Dicapo Opera Theatre - Iolanta - Photo James Martindale

New York, NY – A multi-million dollar budget cannot buy the type of imagination and ingenuity that is engendered by willpower, dedication, and modest means. Dicapo Opera Theatre, one of the best of New York City’s many small opera companies, has been performing a wide range of repertory staples, neglected works of the canon, and world and national premieres for thirty years on a less than bloated budget. This fall’s production of Tchaikovsky’s one act fairy-tale Iolanta was proof that the secret to opera’s mystical allure does not lie in opulent sets, high profile glamour stars, or a chorus of a thousand, but in a healthy exercise of the imagination and a lot of love.

Written only a year before his death, Iolanta is only one of three of Tchaikovsky’s eleven operas not based on a Russian subject or Russian text. The composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, adapted the libretto from Danish playwright Henrik Hertz’s play, King Rene’s Daughter. As in most fairy tales, the story is relatively simple, with unambiguous stock characters, a fantastical obstacle, and a happily-ever-after denouement. The blind daughter of King Rene, Iolanta, lives in isolation with her nanny, the requisite matronly Russian contralto, and her many ladies-in-waiting. Iolanta is unaware that she is blind, or even a princess, until Robert, the Duke of Burgundy, and his companion Vaudemont trespass into her garden. Vaudemont instantly falls in love with Iolanta, but to his dismay discovers that she is blind. As he sings to her of the glory of sight, light, and God, they fall in love, but Iolanta is still content to be blind. Not until her father condemns Vaudemont to death for making Iolanta aware of her affliction, does she want to see in order to save Vaudemont’s life. The opera ends with Iolanta’s cure and a radiant, powerful chorus in praise of light and the creator.

Dicapo Opera Theatre - Iolanta - Photo James MartindaleThe monochromatic set consisting of five dark panels covered in black ivy and flowers at first seems a little “low-budget,” but it is a choice that reflects what Iolanta sees: darkness. This pervasive darkness is relieved by the jubilantly outfitted chorus women who flaunt dresses of pink, purple, red, and yellow. The constant darkness is justified by the magnificent ending: As Iolanta gains the ability to see, the five panels and the dark sheets covering the stage are removed, revealing a large painted sun. Just as Iolanta is suddenly overcome with light, the audience too experiences the surprise and brilliance of this awesome moment. The effect was cleverly conceived and powerfully realized by director Michael Capasso with set and light designs by John Farrell and Susan Roth.

Corinne Winters sang the title role with robust lyricism. Within her small frame – she really looked like a delicate 15 year old princess – she houses an instrument of laudable size and enviable color. Playing a blind character is a treacherous assignment, however, and Winters often appeared to be somewhere between totally indifferent and a little aloof. Regardless of her static facial expressions, her voice resonated with character and emotion, and that is what is really important.

Alex Richardson as Vaudemont matched Winters in sincerity and soul. His phrases were infinite in length even at the upper reaches of his range, in which he sometimes abandoned the beauty and core in middle voice but never his finesse. The lengthy duet between Iolanta and Vaudemont was the highlight of the evening with as much credit due to Richardson and Winters as to Tchaikovsky.

Dicapo Opera Theatre - Iolanta - Photo James MartindaleThe requirements for the role of Iolanta’s father, King Rene, are cruel and unusual. Rene is the only character in the opera with dimension, and Tchaikovsky left nothing to be desired in writing the role by conflating the muscular high notes of a Verdi baritone with the lowest rumblings of a Russian bass. Seth Marise Carico certainly has the passion and willpower to play Rene, but the role’s extreme vocal demands were out of his reach. He lacked power and security in the role’s highest notes and managed but a low grumble in the lowest. Fortunately, his fearless dramatic commitment and handsome middle voice ensured that any of the short-lived extremes were quickly forgiven and forgotten.

In the brief role of Robert,Vaudemont’s friend and Iolanta’s fiancé since childhood baritone Gustavo Feulien sang with a combination of roguish swagger and aristocratic eloquence. The color and clarity of his sound is reminiscent of a young Dmitri Hvorostovsky but with more personality.

Any discussion of a Russian opera without mention of the chorus would be incomplete. Unlike Queen of Spades or Eugene Onegin, Iolanta is not plagued by long, drama-killing peasant choruses. They are expertly sung by the of the DiCapo Resident Artist program, many of whom are promising singers in their own right. The final chorus, split in the middle by a gorgeous octet, was perfectly paired with Iolanta’s revelation in one of those rare moments when music, visual, and text combine to transport the audience.

And all by relying on something more commendable than an engorged budget.

Photos by James Martindale